‘To thine own self be true...’
Last weekend was similar to what the last few months have been like. Busy and lots of travelling. I finished work at 1.30pm on Friday and headed to Bandon Grammer School to give a talk to their Leaving Certs in their magnificient new lecture theatre. The questions by some of the students after continued to inform me of how aware our young people are about Mental Health and emotional wellbeing issues. Some of the questions had great depth to them and the discussion was enlightening.
I departed Bandon and headed to Mallow to collect my friend, the genial Eddie O’Donnell who was the stats man for the Cork team during Donal O’Grady and John Allen’s time. Eddie has lived in Mallow for most of his life but he is Nenagh born and bred and tonight we are heading to his hometown where I am giving a talk along with Tipp hurler Seamus Hennessey at the Nenagh Eire Og GAA club’s launch of their impressive new Mental Health initiative.
Being in Eddie’s company shortens the duration of the journey. Eddie is in his seventies and is a fountain of information and fantastic stories. The conversation ranges from hurling, politics, depression, religion, the moon and the stars, God, life and death.
At the end of the night, Eddie introduces me to Mackey McKenna, the legendary Tipp hurler of the sixties. What a character. Eddie has a signed Sean Og book for his best friend Paidi O’Kinneide so at 11.30pm, Eddie and Mackey, about 150 years between them, somehow fit in to the front seat of my van and we drive to Paidi’s home.
The welcome is warm and the next couple of hours are filled with stories, laughter and songs. About 2am, the lads pile in to the front again. I’m terrified of driving through Nenagh and being stopped by the Guards with two oul fellas packed in to one seat but Mackey assures me there will be no problem, he knows them all and far more importantly, they know and like him. He speaks with reverence about the old Cork hurlers and in particular his admiration for Ring. We drop him off home and face the van for Cork. It’s the early hours when I return to Cloyne.
On Saturday morning, I get a few hours done at work to make up for the time taken off the day before and in the afternoon do an interview with Rob Hanrahan on his ‘Sporting Cork’ Radio show. Rob proves to be a terrific host, his questions are articulate and interesting, he is as good a Radio presenter as any I have encountered over the past few months.
On Sunday morning, as the locals gather for Mass, I jump in my van, my second home lately and head for Galway to meet Níall McDonagh. Níall is a cousin of Galway hurler Niall Donoghue who ended his life through suicide only a few months before.
Níall has invited me to Kilbeacanty to meet with Niall's Dad Francis but before we head to his homeplace, we visit Niall's grave. Looking down at the many flowers on the still fresh soil, it's difficult to imagine only a few months earlier this warrior had graced Croke Park in front of tens of thousands of people playing the ultimate warrior sport of hurling.
As we both knelt and said a quiet prayer, the heavens opened and with the hailstones hurtling from the bleak, grey skies that blend with the tears streaming from our eyes, this isolated, quiet graveyard and Niall's grave are a solemn reminder of the horrific tragedy and utter finality of suicide.
Francis Donoghue is a quietly spoken man with large hands that have years of hard work etched across his solid palms. He has many questions, most of which I can't answer and questions that he will never get an answer to.
His sister Mary McDonagh, Níall's mum, cooks a large dinner and the conversation during the meal is open, raw and honest. I leave Kilbeacanty with a mixture of emotions, immense sadness and empathy for the Donoghue and McDonagh family and a strong stirring in my soul to be more authentic about a part of my life that I now feel needs expression if I want to continue this new journey I am now on.
I do a lot of my best thinking while driving and on the long journey home that night, I reflect on events of the past few months. The wonderful people I have met, the tragic and heartbreaking stories I have witnessed, the tremendous organisations I have encountered doing vital work in the area of Mental Health and Emotional Wellbeing at ground level, the privilege of listening to people on the phone and reading e-mails from them telling me parts of their lives they have never expressed to anyone before. The relief for them to share their story is always obvious.
It’s this last part that gnaws away on my mind. The American poet Maya Angelou says 'there is no greater agony that the bearing of an untold story within you'. Something in Kilbeacanty has gently encouraged the unbearing of a part of my own untold story.
A big part of the message that I give to people is how important it is for us to live our own lives, that by being real and authentic allows those around us to be the same and how we all have a sacred responsibility to create the culture and atmosphere that allows people’s real selves to emerge from the shadows of repression and 'de-press'ion.
I wrote in a piece I did for the Irish Central website last week that ‘there are parts of me that still need exploration and expression’. When I was not well during my late teens and early twenties, my sexuality was never an issue for me and it was something that never concerned me.
I had a major battle going on then, fighting literally for my life, with my deep, dark and omnipressant depression. I can honestly say that concerns with my sexuality had little, if nothing, to do with the distress I had in my life then. It was long after my counselling had ended and was far on my path to wellness and continuing my inner work on my own that I began to explore this area of my being.
I’ve known for a good while now that I have been sexually attracted to men. In that time, I’ve had relationships with women, and enjoyed them immensely but I’ve always had more fulfilment from being with a man.
I’m not sure what label society would categorise me under. Life for me is never black or white (though I know a lot about the blackness) but more about different shades of grey. Anyhow, it’s none of my business what others think of me.
I have been comfortable with this area of my life and I never felt the need to discuss it with anyone. That is until recently. As I crossed the border from Galway into Clare and then back home to Cork and through the towns of Buttevant, Charleville and Mallow, I thought strongly about the current wellbeing work I am involved with.
I thought about the vast numbers of people that I have spoken to and all the upcoming events and organisations that I have committed to speaking with and supporting. I repeatedly asked myself the question ‘Do I need to talk and discuss this aspect and area of my life?
I have never denied anything about this part of my life because no one has ever asked me the question. I often use Shakespeare’s quote in my talks ‘To thine own self be true so to no man can thoust ever be false again’. By me talking about this part of my life, I am being true to myself but more importantly right now, I am being true to all of those people that I am interacting with on a daily basis.
I am being true to those countless people that send me letters and e-mails and ring me telling me about parts of their lives that they have been terrified to ever discuss with anyone else.
I couldn’t continue to feel authentic in meeting and talking to these people and continuing to do the work that I am doing without being able to be fully open and honest about all aspects of my life.
I called to my parent’s house on the way home to discuss the issue with them. I could feel the butterflies gathering in my stomach and my heart beginning to beat that bit faster. It was a similar feeling to the one you get when you wake the morning of an important championship game.
The words of Coelho flashed in my mind ‘A person is at their most powerful when they are willing to be vulnerable’.
However, when you have been to the depths of darkness, despair and terror that I have been in my mind and life, when you have collapsed in your workplace and lost all of your dignity, when you have been pumped with medication to the point where you don’t know day from night, when you have come to within a hair’s breadth of ending your precious life,
and then, when you go through all of that and start to be able to get comfortable with your darkness, when you start to understand it’s real meaning for you and realise that you have to deal with it before you can truly see your own real light,
when you begin to explore your magical and complex inner worlds that are full of high mountains, deep valleys and forests of the unknown, when you glimpse that place within you that houses the real you that is filled with hope and love and joy and that rich and bountiful peace and stillness that resides within,
when you start to allow your spirit and light to shine like God or Allah or whomever wants us all to do and you discover that by doing this, you allow others the opportunity to do the same, when you come to the realisation that other people’s opinions and judgements of you are all about them and nothing to do with you,
when you know that you are here to live your own life and nobody else’s, then it’s much easier to discuss any part of your life, but it’s still not easy.
I believe nobody should have to talk publicly about matters to do with their wellbeing or with issues to do with their sexuality if they don’t want to. I have chosen to do both.
I have done so because I have a great love of people, I have had that since I was a young child where I could easily hold company with people of all ages.
I enjoy my own company and being alone or all-one with my self at times but equally, I genuinely enjoy being in the presence of other people from all walks of life. Therefore it is immensely important for me to be able to be fully authentic with them when I am in their company, with whatever the discussion is about.
My original blog was written in the hope that it would provide comfort to others that are struggling with issues to do with their Mental Health and emotional wellbeing and help to break down the stigma and taboo that still engulfs this very common aspect of the human experience.
It’s my firm belief that everyone has the right to be who they want to be in this world. The human spirit always wants to be free to live its own life and as long as there are parts of it that can’t be fully expressed, people will continue to have difficulties with their Mental Health and wellbeing.
I look forward to continuing my journey and travels around our beautiful country, meeting new people and forging new alliances of hope and awareness and action.
The walls of silence and fear around Mental Health and emotional wellbeing are slowly crumbling, our people are gathering in large numbers in their communities, they are beginning to recognise their own vast and innate power and are acknowledging that the dogmas of old are no longer acceptable.
They want to be released and release their neighbours from the shackles and chains of repression that have haunted previous generations.
This gathering momentum of desire for change and transformation in how we are within ourselves and with each other will ensure that the light of our real selves can continue to emerge from the shadows. And in the words of Martin Luther King, our spirit and real selves will be able to declare “free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last”.
A great weight hasn’t been lifted off my shoulders. I worked through and removed that many years before. Still though, it’s nice as my head just hits the pillow on Sunday night to get a phone call from my Dad. “Hi Con. Just want to say your Mam and I love you. Good night”. Good night Da!